Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Building the perfect bullpen corps

From Baseball Digest, 9/04, by Tom Singer

'DURABILITY. CONTROL. Flexibility. Variety. Resiliency. Power and/or trickery. And we haven't even yet gotten into the intangibles of guts, confidence and selective amnesia--all equally valuable components of a topnotch bullpen.

In modern baseball, bullpens are the auto dealership sales manager, the defensive line, the "good cop." Others get most of the glory--they get results. Others insert the key--they turn it. Others set up the deal--they close it.

We're not talking about what makes a good reliever. The short list: Good arm, the ability and nerve to throw strikes. Case closed.

But, what makes a good bullpen, that quilt of arms which dictates the fates of today's teams? On that, there's unanimity.

"You start with a setup-closer tandem, having a guy to pitch in front of the closer and help you shorten games," says Anaheim manager Mike Scioscia. "Then, you look for some balance. A left-hander, maybe two, and a righty who can pitch longer, and a couple of guys for situations--when you're looking for a strikeout or a ground ball."

Indeed, a good bullpen works like a brilliant sitcom. The key is having the right ensemble cast, not headliners. So "Friends" and the Yankees have a lot more in common than a New York setting.

In the Bronx, Tom Gordon sets up Mariano Rivera, Donovan Osborne and Paul Quantrill can eat up innings, and Gabe White matches up with left-handed hitters.

And the Angels also have that perfect train in Kevin Gregg, Scot Shields, Ben Weber, Francisco Rodriguez, and Brendan Donnelly in handing off to closer Troy Percival.

No coincidence, both teams led their respective divisions through late June. The correlation between bullpen and standing is irrefutable.

  • It's like Whitey Herzog told a young manager in 1980: "You're never smart until you have a closer."

"I didn't realize that when he told me," Tony La Russa reflects now. "Then I got one and, 'Oh, shoot, I understand."

However, a good bullpen requires a lot than a great closer. Without the proper lead-ins, the closer withers on the pen pine. He becomes invisible, of little use, like a fourth leg on a tripod.

Tampa Bay's Danys Baez is perfect in save opportunities--but hasn't had a lot of them to work with. Danny Kolb has shown success at the end of an otherwise lax Milwaukee pen. The Mariners haven't declined because of Kazuhiro Sasaki's departure--Eddie Guardado has ably replaced him. John Smoltz is as secure as ever in Atlanta as the Braves' stopper.

You need the right people to hand off the ball to the closer. This necessity--the three-inning relays--is the most dramatic change in the modern game.

  • Contrary to myth, closers have been around for a long time; Joe Page had 27 saves for the 1949 Yankees, Ted Abernathy 31 for the 1965 Cubs, and so on.

However, closers of yore flew solo and only when faltering starters needed help. Bruce Sutter and Rollie Fingers routinely picked up starters directly and pitched two-pins innings, because they only had to do it two, three times a week.

In 1970, a season picked at random, there were 852 complete games in the majors. But today's starters are yanked by design, not peril. In 2003, big league starters averaged 5.9 innings, with remarkably little difference from "best" to "worst" rotations.

The rest of the games belong to bullpens, which hence define teams. Even more so during what has already been a season of remarkable comebacks: Texas overcame a 10-run deficit, Milwaukee came back from nine down,

  • the Yankees won twice in one week after trailing by six.

Clearly, the bullpen chain gang has become a team's most vital element. Ordinarily, they are also the most anonymous. Middle relievers are baseball's foot soldiers.

  • Anaheim pitching coach Bud Black fingers "true unselfishness" as a virtue of the modern pen. "In most situations, one guy gets all the glory, the saves," he says. "But the other guys have the equally important job of getting crucial outs late in the game."***

And you can be sure they will be the ones getting them, because today's game clearly has a bullpen addiction.

Snapshot: On May 5, there were four 2-0 games in the National League; they involved an amazing total of 28 pitchers.

Snapshot II: In the first two weeks of May, there were four 1-0 games in the majors; these minimal-scoring affairs featured a total of 24 pitchers.

  • Given this mentality, no wonder a bullpen's work is reflected in the standings.

Through June 27, the Phillies (2.31) boasted the majors' lowest bullpen ERA. The Dodgers' pen was flawless (7-0 record along with Gagne's 18-for-18 saves scorecard).

Houston's bullpen numbers were modest save for one--Astros relievers had allowed only a majors-low five inherited runners to score, reflected in their starters' 28-18 record. The Boston pen, which earlier in the season ran off 32 and one-third straight scoreless innings, led the A.L. with a 2.77 ERA.

Ten different relievers contributed to that Red Sox shutout string--the epitome of the chain-gang that turns quality starts into victories.

"You get a lead around the sixth or seventh, you think, OK, I've got the ninth (with the closer)," La Russa says. "Now all we need to do is get six, seven, eight.

"And if you've got somebody for the eighth, too, then you just need six and seven. It's the best edge that a manager can have."

In the business, it's called "shortening the game." To beat a team with a dynamic finishing tandem on standby--Guillermo Mota-Eric Gagne, Mike Timlin-Keith Foulke, Rodriguez-Percival--you had better have the lead at the seventh-inning stretch.

"If you've got a premium guy in front of the closer," Scioscia says, "you're looking at a six, seven-inning game. Early runs become very important.

"A team with a well-constructed pen affects strategy early in the game more than what happens late. If the roles are well-defined, and well-known, there are no surprises late in a game."

The urge to shorten games has given rise to the latest relief rage: doubling up on closers. The premier teams are paying a premium for erstwhile closers who now own the eighth.###

  • The Yankees, who virtually pioneered this trend in 1996 when Rivera set up John Wetteland, now have Gordon (46 saves for the 1998 Red Sox) setting up Mariano.

"We have that kind of ability to shut the game down," Rivera says. "The starters go six, then the bullpen takes over."

The Phillies have Tim Worrell (38 saves for the Giants last season) setting up Billy Wagner. In Boston, Scott Williamson (55 career saves) sets up Foulke. The 2003 Marlins rallied into the postseason with Ugueth Urbina and Braden Looper alternately setting up each other.

LaTroy Hawkins (57 career saves), who last season set up Eddie Guardado in Minnesota and at season's start set up for Cubs closer Joe Borowski before Borowski went on the DL and Hawkins moved into the closer role, recognizes that games have evolved into three-out rounds.

"Setup men are closers, too," Hawkins says. "We can lose a lot of games in the seventh or eighth innings. Whoever pitches the seventh is the closer for that inning, whoever pitches the eighth is the closer for the eighth."

La Russa, known as the Father of the Modern Pen for how he assembled and worked it in Oakland in the late '80s, recalls the key to that chain.

"We had a Hall of Fame closer (Dennis Eckersley), and if there's such a thing as a Hall of Fame spot for a setup guy, (Rick) Honeycutt was incredible," La Russa says. "We fit in a lot of other guys, but the key was those two guys at the top."

Now, having the rightbullpen guys is the key to reaching the top.'

***Buddy Black will find the opposite of this when he's at the Padres. Hoffman is there only for the 9th inning no matter what, selling the "saves" total, just the stat, just the glory, just the selfishness.

###Singer notes Rivera as "closer who owned the 8th " as pioneer in 1996. Was this on ESPN every night for several years? Somehow, no it wasn't.


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